Artist Profile: Erika Nelson

2 12 2010

Next up in the series of artist interviews: Erika Nelson of Lucas, Kansas. I first knew of Erika through her work with the Salina Art Center, but this amazing artist has many other credits to her name. Erika lives next door to the famous/infamous Garden of Eden in Lucas, where she runs a traveling roadside attraction and museum, The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things (soon to be featured on the new Conan O’Brien show!).

Erika’s Art Car garners attention wherever she goes.

Erika produces textile, sculptural, and installation work, and most recently she assisted on the Kansas Community Mural Project in Newton.

Erika’s caveats before she answers specific questions about feminism and feminist art:
EN: I’ve been referred to as a feminist artist before, and the designation always confused me. Partially because I was brought up to disregard labels, to actively pursue my own identity. Whenever the topic would come up, I would ask why they put me in that category, with various answers: “Well, you’re a girl, and you’re outspoken.” “You did a piece about gender issues.” “You’re doing things a girl would do, but the way a guy would do it.” The answers didn’t clarify anything for me. When bringing this up with family, the first answer from the room (which I use most of the time) was “We don’t think of you as a feminist, we think of you as Erika.”

I’m not disregarding the classification, but it’s not something that exists in the front of my head about my own work. Yes, I’m female, but that isn’t something I think about, or claim as one of the more important parts of my identity. It’s a biological fact. (oooh – that statement might throw me out of the feminist genre) But that basic biology DOES shape personal experience (may have made it back in.), just as being male shapes boys’ experiences, which in turn informs the artwork produced. When approaching a topic or an artwork, I respond to whatever topic from my own point of view, not considering what a ‘female’ artist or a ‘feminist’ artist or a ‘young’ artist or a ‘trained’ artist or a ‘rural’ artist or an ‘outsider’ artist or a ‘new genres’ artist or a ‘deconstructionist’ artist point of view.

REB: Do critical issues of gender influence your current and/or past work, and if so, how?

EN: Tangentially. The creation motives for some of my past work reflect upbringing, memory, and disappearing items. Most of the time, it manifested itself in subversive textiles, drawing on a handicraft tradition within my own family. My explorations during grad school focused on deconstructing the American Dream, with a mix of male-seeming and female-seeming pieces, usually produced as two halves of a whole, but addressing some of the stereotypes of culture and desire. While gender issues ended up being a conversation in the critique process, and honing the language to discuss the pieces, the initial motivations were history and memory, but expressed through family traditions. In form, these expressions often found themselves in a traditionally female expression, while the content was based in concept and subversion (male, or female? Didn’t consider the difference.).

REB: What is your background, in general, with feminism?

EN: I grew up in a matriarchy, in an environment where the questions of gender roles were (relatively) nullified. Yes, we were taught to cook and do laundry, just as we were taught to slaughter hogs and mow the lawn. I thought that was ‘normal’ for EVERYONE, to be taught all the basic skills of living, until later when I met people who had big blank spots because of perceived gender bias or expectations.

Now, living in a small rural town in Kansas, I’m continually surprised at the number of dynamic, engaged women who have a Pavlovian response to the noon whistle – they suddenly dart off, saying “I’ve got to make lunch for my husband.” I find that shocking. I’m not sure if I’m shocked by the embracing of a traditional gender role, obliging the female to drop her work in the service of another, or the incapability of the male to make his own lunch. But, that also comes from a person (me) who lives alone with no dependents.

As far as feminism, I started learning about it (again, tangentially), through punk and alt rock. Tragic Mulatto, Diamanda Galas, a slew of amazing performers – write-ups in ReSearch periodicals, and underground mags and zines. I ‘discovered’ them through music, and was amazed and surprised to find them relabeled later as Feminists when the mainstream and academic worlds wrote about them.

In the formal study of feminism, I’ve been introduced to a number of artists who self-identify with feminism, but the label is slippery – it sticks on paper, but it doesn’t stick in my head or my admiration of their work. In trying to see if some of my favorite female artists would be considered feminist artists, I have to go and look up their work, and see if the label is there. Ann Hamilton – amazing sets of repeated, obsessive actions, in an installation setting. Is she a feminist artist? Does inclusion of gender roles alone make someone a feminist? Is the designation feminist an action-oriented or aggressive label, would it be applied to a passive action, is the introduction of the question enough to have it labeled a feminist artwork or someone a feminist artist?

I didn’t think about the rifts or separations, until pursuing my MFA. Many of these issues were raised in the department I was accepted in to (textiles) because of the traditional roles assigned to the craft areas. (I was also up for a spot in Sculpture, but there was only one studio available that year, so I decided to take the Textiles offer). The Art/Craft debate/split probably parallels a gender role debate, but I was a happy bumbler between the worlds, again not seeing what the difference could be. I spent equal time in the Sculpture department and the Textiles department, trying to bridge the gaps that (it seemed) others kept insisting were there.

For example – from ArtLexicon: “Feminist theory must take into account the circumstances of most women’s lives as mothers, household workers, and caregivers, in addition to the pervasive misconception that women are genetically inferior to men.” I’m not a mother, household worker, or caregiver. I don’t often encounter people who assume I’m genetically inferior, and if I do encounter them, they have little or no effect on my psyche. But, the fact that the definition exists, that these perceptions are tacked on to a female artist’s work, regardless of upbringing or era or work, does have its influence/impact on me. So, what is the difference between the impact of the assumed influences and the impact of the existence of the definition? Do they have the same results in current art conversations?

REB: Are there specific women or feminist writers who have particularly influenced your thinking and art?

EN: I’m not sure I can identify feminist writers. who are they? Are they self-identified, or externally labeled? (Just Googled the term – read about 20 of the list that popped up first) I keep thinking about the punk and performance artists I found myself drawn to – Lydia Lunch, Annie Sprinkle. Are they feminists? Their methods and ideas were definitely influential, but I keep misplacing the designations for them. I was also drawn to Robert Gober and Mike Kelley, and the image sets for all four of these artists are in the same place in my mental visual library. I connect them through materials, abject subject matter, and subversion of perception through (often) kitsch iconography. Does this make Mike an honorary feminist artist? Does it mean Annie’s images are sexist? Sexy? What would happen if Gober did a Sprinkle. does that change either of their expressions?

In a recent Activism in Art lecture I put together for the Daughters of the American Colonists, I used many Guerrilla Girls images, as well as Rivera mural images, poster designs from the United Farm Workers, and style bites from AdBusters. The point was to show the turning points, the outspoken examples, the vehicles for social change. I was surprised at the lack of recognition for ANY of these image sources by the DAC ladies, not just the ones from the feminist perspective. Is that due to lack of knowledge from a women’s group about women’s issues or politics, or the lack of knowledge of the general public about art or social movements? (Yes, I’m DAC. How’s that for contradiction? Speaking of which, where would these groups fit in the feminist debate – historical or social or civic clubs divided by gender? I’m a part of three of them, all lineage based, perpetuating a split or designation as ‘other’. At the same time, I won’t go to ‘women’s night out’ events, or ‘ladies day’ activities. Go figure.)

REB: Were you influenced by the American Feminist Art Movements of the 1970s? Or feminist art produced abroad?

EN: Yes, in that it influenced the whole course of art history and dialogue. But, in the course of academic studies, it was introduced as a defined set of actions and results, an encapsulated Movement, as any of the following or preceding or contemporary Movements were presented. Some artworks or expressions interested me personally, others didn’t (as with any historical period), but it did give an expanded context for the work being produced afterwards, and gave me a clearer view of the histories leading up to contemporary art practices.

I’m incredibly lucky in that by the time I was looking at art history, the histories had been rewritten to include the female artists that had formerly been overlooked. I was completely struck by Meret Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur, and in my head, it’s one of the two slides that embody the spirit of Surrealism after Dada. Early (primitive) art, to me, will always be represented by the Venus of Willendorf, as a self-observation tool to measure pregnancy (the theory presented in my first Art History class, proposing that the self-view of a pregnant woman corresponds to most of the female figurines when also viewed from the top). This more-inclusive view or exposure was due TO the work of the Feminist Art Movement, in spurring a reevaluation of histories and perspectives, but it is distanced from me time-wise – I didn’t see or experience the impact as it happened, but have the history now. Which is exactly the point, isn’t it?

REB: Tell us a little about the collaborative projects you’ve been involved with. Do you see collaboration as a potential trait of feminist art?

EN: 2010 did end up being a year of collaboration – first, with a two-person installation collaboration for the Smoky Hill River Festival in Salina, then with a community mural project in Newton with muralist Dave Loewenstein and fellow artist Matthew Farley, and finally, with an upcoming welding project with folk artist M.T. Liggett.

The Smoky Hill River Festival installation began as a brainstorm with the festival coordinator, addressing a difficult area – the upper teir of a chain-link fence. Pennsylvania artist Bill Godfrey and I were chosen to address the space, utilizing a common inspiration source. He works in bright fabric banners, and I work with bright plastic fence inserts. We chose Austrian artist ‘Hundertwasser’ as the design inspiration, corresponded via email while developing our parts and pieces, and then, at the festival, met for the first time to organically combine them at the installation site. The Salina Journal covered it in a story titled “Artistic Blind Date: Artists who’ve never met and live states apart design festival mural”, Salina (KS) Journal, June 10, 2010, pps A1, A3. (yeah, they went there. Bill’s comment, when he saw the headline, was “well, I guess they needed a hook.”)

One other collaboration, which happened mostly virtually, involved the concept of place and the replacement of the real with the generic. Art Car Artist friend Ken Duffy took photos of San Francisco area McDonald’s restaurants. He sent them to me, and I produced ballpoint pen illustrations on paper plates, framed in (gallery appropriate) black wicker holders, and sent them back to San Francisco for a Souvenir Show: Wish You Were Here. The Genericana Souvenir Plates were a big hit, and Ken attended the opening, sending back souvenir snapshots to me (as yet another iteration of the concept) back in Kansas.

Most of the collaborations happen based on a specific problem or specific space, and then identifying people who have similar aesthetics (or complimentary, if that’s the point) to partner with. I don’t think of collaboration as specific to feminist art, in that collaborations have occurred across genres, across media, across cultures.

REB: What do you see as the relevance of feminism for women working in contemporary art?

EN: I think the groundwork laid by the movement enabled a lessening of the difference, or language to engage difference if/when it is encountered. Current artists can choose to define themselves as feminists or not, creating their own relevance as they see the definition (both of feminism and relevance) – it’s for the individual to define for him or herself (are there male feminist artists? Why or why not? We had this debate one evening in a Graduate Critique – a Textiles student made a quilt out of the crotches of underwear purchased at Goodwill and Salvation Army. In the beginning of the presentation, issues of women’s work, menstruation, and gender issues were presented and debated and it was generally agreed that it was a powerful piece. Then, the artist, a male, revealed his ownership of the piece, and his intentions to address exactly those issues. However, the debate changed to sex, voyeurism, male exploitation of gender issues. Why did the perception change, based solely on the gender of the artist? How do our attachment of meaning regard or disregard the intent of the artist, regardless of gender?)

RE B: You’ve been involved with artist-mentoring programs. How has that influenced your work?

EN: That experience was a welcome change, renewal. It re-opened a critical dialogue, as well as establishing a connection with the regional art community. It served as both a reminder to remain connected to artist on an active basis, and to step back periodically, change perspective on current practice, and push again. Here’s the ending summation from the program:

Reviving rusty critique skills, exploring the hidden dimensions inherent in multiple interpretations of the same visual field and direct conversations evaluating results versus intention were integral to the process, and evidenced in the result. The exchange of ideas cannot be confined by a specific time period, and as a result of this program, a continuing dialogue between participants has been introduced, benefiting all parties.

In working with Ruth, I found a common vision, albeit from a different perspective. An interior dialogue informs her installation and assemblage pieces, while my public work is fairly bold and straightforward. Her experience in the fine art of lettering and visual communication overlap with my own graphic design background, providing a common ground in which to discuss techniques and methods best suited to carrying out this project. Having open, frank discussions about content helped shape (and sometimes disguise) the subject matter in this somewhat open ended approach to narrative form.

REB: Has your work ever been described with gender-inflected adjectives, such as feminine, masculine, decorative, or aggressive? And if so, how have you responded?

EN: Yep – it still takes me by surprise. Two of the best examples:

In a book about Roadside Attractions – “While it is mostly men who have brought their artistic obsessions to the roadside, visitors are welcomed to Lucas by the World’s Largest Souvenir Plate, designed and painted by Erika Nelson.” Response: “Thanks for the inclusion!”. It’s true, percentage-wise. During a sculpture critique, involving a welded structure covered in sail-stitched coats – “You make things a girl would make, but the way a guy would make them.” Response: “What the fuck does that mean?”

REB: Following up on that, you’ve done some work related to perceptions of gender and gender roles. Tell us about your Young Urban Day-of-the-Week Tea Towels.

EN: This set came about after receiving a traditional set of Day of the Week Tea Towels, featuring chickens.  On Monday, the Rooster is playing the guitar and singing to a chick.  On Tuesday, the Hen is cleaning the house. On Wednesday, the Rooster is raking the yard.  On Thursday, the Hen is doing the laundry.

The set was hand-made by a friend of my grandmothers, and presented at a shower.  I thought about the difference in expectations from one generation to the next, and decided to make a set of my own Day of the Week Tea Towels, from the perspective of Grandma’s generation’s assumptions about my generation’s motivations and recreations.

The set still includes days of the week, and male and female figures, but the scenes are much different.  Images include two domestic violence scenes (man beats woman, woman beats man), a convenience store robbery (female), a skateboard purse snatching (male), and a prostitution scene (female).

The message struck a chord with people – even with the (intentionally) rough figures and non-perfected stitching techniques, it won an award for Needlework at Fiberart International ’99.  In the Fiberarts magazine review, they noted it as “..startling but excellent”, followed by a description and viewer effect.  In the non-Fiber world, the message still resonated, being juried in to a museum show by (one of my heros) Lucy Lippard.

Grandma thought they were a hoot.




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